Rarity Round-Up

I don’t need an excuse to go birding, but I’ll gladly take one when it comes my way! It’s nice when I get the chance to steer my aimless wandering toward a meaningful purpose. To that end, I was intrigued by a Friday evening listserv post from Shai containing a last-minute proposal to conduct a “rarity round-up” over the weekend. The goal, as outlined in the email, was to comb the Island as thoroughly as possible in search of any seasonally or regionally unusual birds. I thought of the effort as a sort of practice run for Christmas Bird Count season, with the key difference being a focus on sniffing out surprises rather than tallying the total numbers of each species observed. At any rate, it sounded like a lot of fun. I confirmed my participation with Shai and outlined a rough plan to scour southern Nassau for two days. Saturday morning found me at Jones Beach just as the rising sun set the distant city skyline ablaze.

Rather than join the usuals at the jetty or the median, I decided to get off the beaten path and explore some tucked-away scrubby habitat where I’d enjoyed some warblers a few months prior. It was a pleasant stroll, but unfortunately devoid of anything out of the ordinary. After about an hour I continued on to check some less popular patches in my area. I scanned the marshes north of the Ocean Parkway, discovering my first Snowy Owl of the weekend perched on a hillock across the channel. The bird had found a roost safe from overzealous human admirers, but it still had to contend with unwanted attention from a harrier that halfheartedly buzzed it before continuing on. After opening its beak threateningly at the low-flying nuisance, the owl settled down to rest once again. I drove over to the JFK Sanctuary at Tobay Beach to try my luck. My pishing drew in a number of songbirds, including American Tree Sparrows and Carolina Wrens. I also noted a White-crowned Sparrow foraging with the White-throats, Songs, and Swamps.

JFK turned out to be my most productive stop for rarities, even though I didn’t encounter anything on the level of Hammond’s Flycatcher. A Blue-winged Teal on the hidden ponds with other ducks was a nice find, but a Northern Parula roving with some Yellow-rumps was an even better prize. This individual represented the latest recorded report for Nassau County, and along with a handful of others between Brooklyn and Montauk is among the latest historical sightings in the state. The unseasonably warm weather we’ve experienced has apparently kept a number of warblers lingering long beyond their usual departure. A Wilson’s and Magnolia Warblers in Manhattan and a Prothonotary in Suffolk are also notable for being basically unprecedented north of the Gulf Coast at this time of year. Remarkably, I found a second parula at Cow Meadow Park in the evening hours. These two were my rarest contributions of the weekend, even though the species is abundant at other times of the year.

Other Saturday sites included Point Lookout, Lido West Town Park, the Passive Nature Area, and Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. I also made a quick trip to Robert Moses at dusk to search for some gulls that others had mentioned, but the activity had apparently dispersed by the end of the day. As I was wrapping up my final checklist at dusk, a ghostly form flew into view through the darkening sky. The Snowy passed low over the roof of my car as it headed out to hunt, floating into the night on silent, white wings. Even with the minor unexpected rarities taken into account, my brushes with the ongoing Snowy Owl invasion ranked well among the day’s highlights. In addition to the marsh squatter and the twilit flyby, I managed to scope one of the Jones Beach birds from across the inlet at Point Lookout. I will never tire of watching these majestic predators during their winter visits to our shores.

I met up with Shai, Pat, Pete, and Brent at Sea Levels in Bayshore for dinner. It was a treat to catch up over delicious food and drinks, swapping notes about the day’s searches and trading tales of adventures past. None of us wanted to stay out too late, however, because the rarity round-up was set to continue in the morning. I started Sunday at Robert Moses, hoping to catch the foraging flocks from the previous day. There were a great many birds present in the area, but most were feeding far out on the horizon in front of the sunrise. My scope wasn’t able to resolve anything interesting, so I turned back towards the west. An American Bittern that flew up from the Gilgo Beach marsh was a welcome discovery, and I heard word of more cooperative seabirds at Jones. I made tracks to the West End jetty, where I was greeted by Tripper, John G, and a congregation of hungry Bonaparte’s Gulls.

These fluttery, squeaky mini-gulls, affectionately known as Bonies, are an engaging and entertaining species to observe. I spent a couple of hours with the flock, watching as they swirled and circled around the rip currents and plunged into the sea to nab tiny fish. Besides being thoroughly delightful themselves, large groups of Bonies often attract the attention of similar-looking but less-common species. I was definitely hoping to find a rarer relative among their numbers, like a Black-headed or Little Gull, but the best I could manage was a late Common Tern. Considering how much fun I had during my stakeout, I’d consider this effort time well-wasted.

Despite the lack of sneaky vagrants among the Bonaparte’s ranks, there were plenty of other great winter birds hanging around the area. A Parasitic Jaeger flew east down the shoreline shortly after I arrived, a difficult bird to get from shore and a slightly out-of-season one at that. I was also pleased by the appearance of an adult Iceland Gull winging its way across the inlet. Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones worked the boulders, eagerly digging into morsels exposed by the falling tide.

Harlequin Ducks are a stunning addition to any coastal scene, and there were several of these dapper divers bobbing in the surf. Scoters, eiders, and Long-tailed Ducks were also visible nearby, and I observed good numbers of Red-throated Loons with a few individuals showing off at close range. I’d seen a Snowy Owl on my way down to the jetty, presumably the same one I spied from afar the day before, but taking a closer look on my walk back to the parking lot revealed that there were two different birds on site. All in all, it was a perfect December day at the beach.

I paused briefly at Valley Stream State Park and Hendrickson Park before returning home, saying hello to one of the continuing Cackling Geese and scrounging around in a last ditch attempt to locate something new. With a busy week ahead and sundown fast approaching, I decided to declare my rarity round-up a success and bring the weekend’s birding session to a close. I enjoyed the opportunity to do some self-directed exploration rather than chasing someone else’s finds or counting an assigned territory. Perhaps some of the lingering goodies will stick around for the various CBCs…we don’t have much longer to wait!

Year List Update, December 4 – 403 Species

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Give Thanks for Birding

This is a time of year when we are encouraged to focus on the positives in our lives and show appreciation for the good stuff. It’s definitely not easy, but I do think it’s worth it! Sometimes you just need to take a moment to slow down, look around, and make the most of the current situation. My number one hobby is a constant reminder of this necessity, and I often wonder what I’d do without this beneficial influence. I’ve taken more than my fair share of lumps recently, but my connection to the natural world has helped me keep things in perspective through it all. In this season of thanks giving, I am thankful for birding.

Don’t get me wrong, being a birder comes with its own unique set of headaches and, occasionally, heartbreaks. Missing out on experiencing a new lifer despite your best efforts can be infuriating, and news of the recent Corn Crake’s demise honestly messed me up more than I’m comfortable admitting. Investing so much time and work into exploring nature can enhance the sting of negative moments, but it also makes for a deeply personal experience with incredibly rewarding highlights.

After celebrating the holiday proper with my family, I set out to try my luck at another annual tradition on Friday morning. Thanksgiving vacation usually coincides with the arrival of Snowy Owls in southern New York, and this year is shaping up as a potential whopper of an invasion. Miriam and I headed down to the coast to search for Arctic visitors, and it wasn’t long before we located an owl resting atop a dune. I’m always grateful for an opportunity to enjoy the company of my favorite animal, and Miriam was happy with her greatly improved looks compared to her previous encounter.

These endlessly popular birds typically draw a lot of attention, and I was disappointed to learn that this individual had already been pressured into flight several times that day. Snowy mania hits hard, and some folks are so obsessed with getting the best views and pictures that they don’t consider the personal space of the animals. Debates over how to mitigate the undue stress on these conspicuous, charismatic predators rage with fiery intensity whenever they visit our shores. The NY Birders group recently banned Snowy Owl images after a particularly fierce series of arguments between birders, photographers, and all nature enthusiasts in between. These quarrels will never lessen my love for Bubo scandiacus. It’s easy to see why people get so excited about these magical birds, but it should be equally easy to understand how important it is to give them the respect they deserve.

On Saturday, I took a leftovers delivery to my grandfather’s house as an excuse to drop by the scene of a local rarity discovery. A Western Tanager had been hanging around by the Alley Pond Environmental Center, a frequent haunt of mine back in my kindergarten days. I eventually got a brief glimpse of the bird when it flew across the path away from the stakeout spot where I stood with several other hopeful watchers. Even this subpar sighting brought me joy, although this was not my first-ever Western Tanager or even my first one this year. It was, however, my first encounter with the species in my home state. That a seconds-long look at a bird that I’ve seen in several different circumstances can still provide a spark of excitement as a new experience is something worth celebrating. It’s very difficult to stay bored for long when you’re an active birder. I did try for another look on Sunday, though, after some casual Queens county tallying with Brendan. The tanager remained determined to stay hidden, offering only a series of calls from the brush to confirm its continuing presence. Still counts!

The best surprise of the week came in a very nondescript package: a tiny, fluffy, grayish bird that was sighted in Central Park. Expert sleuths determined its identity as a Hammond’s Flycatcher surprisingly quickly considering the variety of notoriously similar-looking options in the genus Empidonax. Perhaps the prompt resolution of the mystery shouldn’t be a surprise, since New Yorkers have some experience sorting out vagrant flycatchers. This is only the third record of occurrence for Hammond’s in New York, and my one and only meeting with the species was on a Rocky Mountain ranger walk so long ago that I had nearly forgotten seeing it. I happily took an opportunity to scoot into the city to search for the wayward western wanderer, and I was able to relocate it as it fluttered through the Ramble in search of food. Even though it’s easy to write Empids off with “seen one, seen ’em all” dismissal, they are rather cute. Any new state bird is a welcome one in my book, especially when it produces a solidly improved encounter with a barely-remembered lifer.

Birding isn’t just about chasing mega rarities. Seasonal irregularities, infrequent regional guests, and even dirt-common local residents can deliver the observant individual from the humdrum routine of everyday life. I got a little bit of each before wrapping up my explorations for the week. The Hammond’s Flycatcher was accompanied by a bright male Wilson’s Warbler, one of several late migrants lingering in the Island and City area. When I returned to Nassau, I found that the pair of Cackling Geese remains at Hendrickson Park, with both birds showing off and posing nicely for photos. I also enjoyed an extended session with some nearby Ring-billed Gulls. Even our most pedestrian neighbors have their charms, and there’s always something worth observing if you simply think to look.

At the close of November, with just one month to go before 2018 comes calling, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ups and downs of the past year a lot more frequently. It has certainly been a hell of a ride, and I get the sense that the excitement isn’t over yet. Let’s see what December has to offer before the final curtain call!

Year List Update, December 1 – 403 Species (+ Hammond’s Flycatcher)

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YESvember!

Late fall always seems to bring the excitement. As southbound migration begins to slow down, the potential for weird surprises comes to a peak around the time that expected wintering birds start to arrive. November is a great time of year to get out and explore personal patches, and it helps to take note of long-term weather patterns and local conditions to maximize the efficiency of search time. This month often brings some of my favorite birding moments of any given year due to the consistent unpredictability. I often find myself down by the seashore, looking for unusual vagrants among the residents and more typical travelers. Flocks of gulls and swarms of passage passerines are great example opportunities to turn up something interesting, and they often provide plenty of spectacle themselves.

Geese are some of the most conspicuous arrivals in November. They are loud, obvious, and abundant, and lost geese have a well-documented tendency to fall in with crowds of common species. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning numbers of waterfowl at Hendrickson Park, watching closely for last winter’s most famous visitor. Off-track birds sometimes return to the same locations for years on end, and Dad is especially hopeful that his friend will return to us soon. So far, all of the geese at the lake have black feet, but migrants have been slightly delayed in their journey to our latitude. Anything is possible. I did, however, spot a Cackling Goose among the countless Canadas on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t the most obvious individual, but its short bill, frosty plumage, and squarish head stood out from the crowd.

I returned to Hendrickson on Saturday, and I located a second Cackling Goose after refinding the bird from the previous evening. This individual was much more conspicuous, with a stubby little bill affixed to its blocky head. This tiny, adorable gooselet looks remarkably similar to the bird that spent the season here from 2016 to 2017. Photos on eBird reveal that there have been several different Cackling Geese observed at this site over the past year or so, but the long-staying individual was distinctly diminutive and cartoonishly cute. Comparing my previous photos to the most recent series of the “new” goose, I think there’s a real possibility that this is a returning bird.

The gaggle of geese lounging on the lakeshore contained a mix of beefy locals and smaller migrants. The degree of variation in this species is impressive, even with the Cackling clan removed and recognized as biologically separate. I noticed a compact Canada with a thin, dusky chinstrap that resulted in an atypical dark-faced look. This bird, too, looked rather familiar, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a migrant that kept the company of last winter’s Cackler. Only time will tell if these are the only rarities to recur at this location.

There were plenty of gulls, cormorants, and ducks roosting alongside the geese. An American Coot was another indicator of the turning seasons, and I was delighted to see a handsome pair of Wood Ducks paddling out towards the center of the water feature. The late morning light illuminated the bright blue-green eyes of the cormorants perfectly. It is always a treat to observe this hidden feature in the field: it lends a lot of charm to an already quirky and entertaining bird.

When I finished up in Valley Stream, I headed east towards Montauk. My parents invited me to visit them at their weekend campsite in Hither Hills, and the East End birding scene heats up as the weather cools down. After meeting with my family and friends at the Montauk Brewing Company, I set about combing the area for goodies. I put in some time scanning Lake Montauk from multiple vantage points, but I found no sign of the female Brown Booby that lingered in the region from September into November. I can only hope that she got out of town ahead of the cold snap that came through at the end of the week. That same front seems to have ferried in a number of northern visitors, and I was pleased to find Purple Sandpiper, American Pipit, and a variety of seabirds during my scouting. One of the Common Loons I observed was still transitioning out of its dapper summer garb, creating an odd patchwork plumage.

I set up my scope at the Point’s restaurant patio as the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was not disappointed with my impromptu survey. Large feeding flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, several hundred strong, were a welcome sight after too many years with reduced numbers of these birds around the Island. There were good numbers of Laughers and other gulls mixed in with the throngs. I even picked out a pair of Great Shearwaters tailing the fishing boats close to shore. I drove back to the campground at dusk, enjoying dinner, drinks, and games before turning in for the night.

I woke up at 4 AM on Sunday, slipping out of the camper as silently as I could to do some owling. I searched at several spots in Hither Hills and Hither Woods State Parks, connecting with multiple Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl along the way. A tiny shadow that silently flew in to investigate my whistled Saw-whet impression caught me off guard. Interestingly, it revealed itself as a curious Screech-Owl when I got a glimpse of its ear tufts and it began vocalizing. One wonders what goes on in the world of these nocturnal predators when they cross paths with one another in the dark. As sunrise drew near, I made tracks to Camp Hero State Park and prepared for a dawn seawatch atop the bluffs. The lights came on slowly, but the colors and patterns revealed by the early morning glow were well worth the wait.

I’d been communicating with Anthony about coordinating our search efforts in the Hamptons, and he met me at Camp Hero just as the sun was peeking above the horizon. Mere minutes after he turned his optics towards the sea, he called out the name of a bird I was not expecting to hear: Pacific Loon! Anthony got me on the bird as it came perpendicular with out position and continued flying east towards the Point. I immediately saw that it was smaller than a Common Loon, with a less blocky profile and much faster wingbeats. It also had larger trailing feet and a more rounded head than a similarly-sized Red-throated Loon. The contrast between the dark upperparts and the clean white underparts was stark, and there was no evidence of pale speckling or paneling on the back. The bill was straight and intermediate between the two expected species, and the sharp line between dark and light on the neck lacked the white indentations of a Common or the dusky smudging of a young Red-throat. When the bird disappeared from sight, we exchanged high-fives in celebration of our good fortune. This was not only a state bird, but also my 400th year bird of 2017! Not bad for not being certain about setting a goal back in January!

The remainder of our vigil continued to impress. I refound one of the shearwaters from the day before, and Anthony spied a pair of early Razorbills. A Gray Seal was seen bobbing in the surf, and a spout just beyond the breakers drew immediately grabbed our attention. A Minke Whale’s dorsal fin broke the surface, but when we lowered our binoculars we saw a long, flat object rising rising from the waves in the same location. Was that a pectoral fin? The next blow was also followed by a Minke, but the third and fourth revealed a Humpback Whale that was seemingly moving in close association with its smaller cousin. We eventually left the cliffs to sweep the surrounding area for additional birds. Theodore Roosevelt County Park and South Lake Drive were quiet, but we were surprised by a Parasitic Jaeger and a flock of Snow Buntings on the western side of the Lake Montauk Inlet. The final treat of the day was a large pod of dolphins foraging north of Culloden Point. Through Anthony’s stronger scope, we were stunned to see the tan and gray hourglass markings that identified them as Short-beaked Common Dolphins, a species neither of us had ever seen from land before. It seems that the November shock factor isn’t limited to birds! You just never know what you’ll find!

I made a few more stops on my way back to Nassau, pausing at Seatuck Creek in Eastport to add a drake Eurasian Wigeon to my year total and briefly passing through Jones Beach just to see if there was any noteworthy activity. I was ready to crash by the time I made it home, satisfied but exhausted from a full weekend. I’ll be back out at Montauk soon enough…I only hope for similar successes next time!

Year List Update, November 12 – 402 Species (+ American Pipit, Pacific Loon, Parasitic Jaeger, Eurasian Wigeon)

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In Memoriam

The odds of survival are rarely good for a bird so far from home, but we always wish for a miracle. Many of us hope, perhaps selfishly, that at the very least we don’t have to see them go when they go. An individual that simply disappears could still be out there, and it’s never easy knowing for certain that such an incredible story has a sad ending. Those of us who study nature see the cycle of life and death played out time and time again, but at times we feel such a loss a little more personally. These circumstances are especially unfortunate, as a bird that was apparently healthy and active even after a unbelievable trans-Atlantic journey was cut short unnaturally by a collision with a vehicle. I take some solace in the knowledge that this incredible little traveler’s final resting place will be an institution of science, as well as finding peace in the pure, joyous wonderment that this remarkable discovery brought to so many people. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I’m confident the smiles and successes will outweigh the sorrow in our memories.

Rest In Peace, Corn Crake
November 9, 2017. Cedar Beach, Suffolk County, NY
Hereafter preserved at the American Museum of Natural History

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Photo Credit: Sean Sime

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Jimmy Crake Corn

Birding often requires a great deal planning and practice, especially when the goal is to find or chase rarities. The more you know, the more you get to see. I like to keep my various lists, read historical data, and pore over the finer points of challenging IDs to improve my fieldcraft. In general, I work hard to be prepared for anything. However, I love it when a spontaneous, completely unexpected discovery comes out of nowhere and rocks my world. Rare bird alerts, by nature, are full of surprises, but I was totally floored when I opened my email on an otherwise ordinary day to see a fateful message from Ken and Sue Feustel.

A Corn Crake (this is no joke) is currently feeding on the north shoulder of the Ocean Parkway east of the Cedar Beach marina.” Never before has my inbox been graced by a report so incredible that the messenger felt obligated to announce that they weren’t pulling an elaborate prank. This species is a particularly enigmatic member of the ever-secretive rail family. Most rallids are difficult to locate even in areas where they are abundant, though many are known to migrate and wander long distances. These journeys sometimes bring them to unexpected places, and this bird was very far from home. Corn Crakes breed in Eurasian meadows, spending the winter in southern Africa. There are several North American records of individuals who got lost on this long-distance flight and wound up on the wrong continent, but the vast majority of these are over 100 years old. Very few individuals have been seen here in recent history, mostly consisting of specimens provided by hunters and cats. A handful of others were identified or announced too late for followup. One Newfoundland record was seen by only “half a dozen” birders before disappearing forever. There has never really been a properly chaseable Corn Crake in this hemisphere, certainly not since the dawn of modern birding. Until now.

I was in turmoil from the moment I read the email. I could not, would not miss this bird. Leave it to the once-in-a-lifetime vagrant to show up during the work week! At my first opportunity, I rushed homewards. Miriam, my fearless and endlessly supportive co-pilot, met me at the train station with her binoculars and camera so we could save precious minutes of remaining daylight. We made our way south to the Jones Beach barrier island and headed east. Brendan, Taylor, Shai, Mike, and dozens of other birders had already seen the crake over the course of the day. I was assured that he had been fairly cooperative, moving in and out of cover as it worked the brushy edge of the lawn beside the parkway. When we finally arrived at the stakeout, folks returning to their cars flashed smiles and thumbs up in our direction. I led the charge to the westbound roadside, and it wasn’t long before the mega-rare bird emerged from hiding.

The Corn Crake was quite unlike anything else I’ve seen before. Although its form was broadly reminiscent of Soras and other related birds, its relatively large size and sturdier structure set it apart. The intricate patterns of black and brown feathers on its back provided camouflage among the tangles but looked absolutely stunning in the open. Its intentional, deliberate gait and low-slung posture were unfamiliar and un-birdlike, though it looked more classically avian when it perked up like a periscope or darted roadrunner-style into the bushes.

In addition to being an unusual and interesting bird, this is easily one of the rarest creatures I will ever see in the Western Hemisphere. With the near absence of records outside the era of shotgun ornithology, I would guess that fewer than a dozen birders had observed a Corn Crake in North America before this report. The incredibly low rate of detection is certainly compounded by the bird’s inherently furtive habits. As a result, most ABA listers wouldn’t include it on even their wildest wishlists. It’s not really “on the radar” as something to watch for, being totally absent from the esteemed Sibley Guide and most other American birding resources. Sorting my United States life list by frequency on eBird (since North America and the ABA area cannot be sorted this way) the Corn Crake has now unseated even the Shelduck as the Mega of Megas. Best of all, it comes largely free of the provenance controversy that surrounds exotic waterfowl and cagebird candidates!

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The high quality of this bird and the way its discovery blindsided me add up to one of the most memorable sagas of my birding career thus far. I expect that I’ll look back on our successful chase as a lifelong hobby highlight. My most profuse thanks to Ken and Sue for rapidly getting the word out on their truly remarkable find, and special shoutouts to the other birders who got to enjoy the crake and help keep tabs on it. What a mindblowing, unforgettable experience!

Year List Update, November 7 – 398 Species (+ Corn Crake)

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It’s a Shore Thing

Birders and other ecology enthusiasts track the seasonal cycle very closely. Through observation of the annual changes in conditions, we refine our expectations and our understanding of how the natural world works. Every year is different, though, and sometimes nature surprises us. I have been quoted as saying that “summer means shorebirds,” but the 2017 migration season has extended the excitement a bit. In addition to the wayward New Jersey Greenshank that I chased last weekend, there have been a number of late, lingering shorebirds popping up around Long Island. The most notable of these were four Hudsonian Godwits discovered at Heckscher State Park. After seeing frequent reports and stunning photographs of the birds all week, I couldn’t resist heading out to try my luck on Saturday morning. As soon as I arrived at the site, one of the godwits flew across the parking lot entrance road and settled with two of its companions in a grassy puddle at the edge of the concrete.

This species evaded me for many years, mostly because Hudwits typically make very few stops on their migration between the extreme northern and southern reaches of the Americas. This group, unfortunately, is apparently having a rough journey, which may account for their multi-day stay on the Island. Although two individuals are the picture of health, another has apparently injured its right leg and the matching wing. The fourth bird is in an even worse state, with large growths on its face and left leg. All three individuals present were still feeding actively, rushing to refuel so they can continue their flight south. Due to their focused foraging, the godwits paid little mind to the growing crowd of human admirers. The lighting was perfect and our subjects were close and cooperative. This sighting was a great improvement on my life encounter back in August. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to get to know a bird a little better.

There were plenty of other shorebirds probing the puddles. A confiding Greater Yellowlegs associated loosely with the godwits, and flocks of Dunlin alternated between dozing and darting around to snag earthworms and insects.

A Long-billed Dowitcher and a Pectoral Sandpiper were among the less common highlights present. Ring-billed Gulls hung around the periphery, periodically chasing down Dunlin in an effort to steal their hard-won prey. A female Northern Pintail among the Mallards and Black Ducks was also a nice surprise.

Out in the parking lot proper, I spied a large loafing flock of mixed gulls. As I scanned the assemblage, I picked out a smaller, darker bird resting on the pavement. The American Golden-Plover eventually wandered over to join a crew of Black-bellied Plovers, offering a great opportunity to compare these similar species side by side. I have a soft spot for Golden-Plovers, the bird that earned the 500th spot on my life list, and this was the best view I’ve had all year.

When I finally pried myself away from the shorebird spectacle, I departed Heckscher for Swan Lake in East Patchogue. A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported from this location during the week, and I was hoping to secure that species for my year list. I thoroughly checked every corner of the lake from every possible vantage point, but it seemed that the foreign visitor had moved on. I found a variety of more expected waterfowl, including pintail, Gadwall, scaup, Ruddy Ducks, and Bufflehead. There were also two strange-looking domestic Mallards with monochrome plumage, and swans were appropriately abundant. Once I was satisfied that the wigeon was gone rather than hidden, I turned my car back towards Nassau.

My final stop for the day was Jones Beach, where I found high numbers of sparrows and still more lingering shorebirds. A White-rumped Sandpiper and a very late Stilt Sandpiper brought my outing’s total of waders up to 10. Cracking double digit shorebirds in November on Long Island is pretty exceptional. I walked down the beach to the jetty, where flocks of terns were swirling and diving in pursuit of bait fish. A Harbor Seal and small numbers of sea ducks were among the first signs of winter that I observed, contrasting starkly with the warm weather and delayed migrants. There were also some feeding Humpback Whales observed nearby in the morning, but they had been replaced by fishing boats and jet skis by the time I reached the area. Content with my successful day of exploration, I headed home.

The forecast called for sustained easterly winds overnight and a shift to the southeast just before dawn. Even though the projected windspeed wasn’t too high, the direction was nearly optimal for pushing seabirds near to shore. I decided to do a sunrise seawatch from Robert Moses in the hopes of spotting something interesting. The gusts ended up being stronger than predicted, and I arrived at the coast to find a lively, birdy scene. Ken was already present with scope trained on the water, and we were later joined by Doug, Bob, and Sarah. Thousands of scoters, mostly Black with a handful of White-winged and Surf, were winging their way across the horizon. Gannets were plunge diving everywhere we looked, with conservative counts still reaching the high hundreds. I briefly spotted a shearwater cruising by beyond the breakers, and I was hoping for a Manx to add to my 2017 tally. We eventually confirmed the identity of two Great Shearwaters circling the fishing boats, a nice find at this time of year. There were surprisingly few gulls and no jaegers to be seen, but I was glad that I woke up early to survey the ocean. I returned inland once the action began to slow around 9 AM, pausing at Jones and Hendrickson en route to my house.

The weekend’s final adventure began well after sunset on Sunday night. Late fall is the peak migration season for owls, and I was pretty eager to catch up with one after several months without encountering any. Many birders begin searching for owls in earnest after Halloween, a fitting unofficial kickoff to the owling season. I’d heard through the grapevine that some of the smallest and most inconspicuous members of my favorite family had already been discovered in our region, and I knew a fantastic spot to try my luck. After trudging along the dark trails at Stillwell Woods Park, I paused to offer a call to the night. I didn’t have to wait long before a response echoed through the shadowed forest, an eerie, rising wail. It was impossible to see the source of the noise in the gloom, but the keening cry told me all I needed to know. Saw-whet Owls are back. The adrenaline rush that comes with successful owling is one of the most unique feelings birding can provide. The exciting challenge of locating these spectral nocturnal predators, combined with the instinctive, gnawing unease that takes hold of the subconscious in the darkness, is an unparalleled experience. Despite the continuing shorebird diversity and the unseasonably high temperatures, the little Saw-whet’s return is a big reminder that winter is well on its way.

Year List Update, November 5 – 397 Species

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Greenshanks Was My Delight

One birder’s regulars are another birder’s rarities. Every bird comes from somewhere, and a species that may be quite abundant in its home region can spark a frenzy of excitement by showing up in an unexpected place. Rarity is relative, and the desirability of a given target often depends on your geographical point of view. Take, for example, the Common Greenshank. This shorebird earned its name due to its widespread distribution as well as its viridescent gams, with populations breeding across Eurasia and wintering in Africa, Australia, and southern Asia. Occupying a ecological niche similar to our familiar Greater Yellowlegs, Greenshanks are frequently observed in marshes throughout the Old World. Even in North America, Tringa nebularia is listed as a mere Code 3 bird due to the nearly annual occurrence of off-track migrants in the far western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Last week’s report of a sighting in New Jersey, however, was decidedly uncommon. There are only a handful of records in history for the species on the Atlantic coast of the continent, and this individual was found in a readily accessible birding hotspot, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Hordes of twitchers descended on the site, and spectacular chaos ensued.

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Still smarting from my missed connection in Connecticut, I initially grumbled that the Monday discovery of the bird was not conducive to chasing. When the weekend rolled around and the Greenshank was still being reported regularly, Brendan reached out to me to see if I was interested in going for it. As if he needed to ask! We set out ahead of sunrise on Saturday, making good time in our journey along the Belt Parkway, through Staten Island, and south towards Atlantic City. Tom Ford-Hutchinson had set up a group messaging system to help coordinate search efforts, and an early morning update informed us that our quarry had been relocated along the southern edge of the wildlife drive loop. We reached the Brigantine Unit of the refuge just before 9 AM, paying the entrance fee and making our way out the road. Our arrival at the observation spot was met by a huge crowd of double parked vehicles blocking our path forward on the one-way road along the dike. Overheard whisperings suggested that the bird had flown north, and messages on the group chat confirmed that the European visitor had gone missing. As the gridlock began to loosen up, we continued along the loop to the “dogleg,” a bend in the northern dike where the bird was originally found.

There were a lot of familiar faces out on the hunt, and throughout the morning we attempted to keep one another informed of the latest reports and rumors. An hour ticked by without any sign of our target, and then suddenly a flurry of conflicting updates came in all at once. Friends called us with news that a group further up the road was on the bird, while someone on the chat chimed in to say that it was back at the south side. When we approached the closer alleged vantage point, the cry went up that it was flying. Brendan and I followed the directions of those tracking it, and I managed to get my binoculars on a small, tight flock of shorebirds looping out over the pool. The Greenshank was probably in my view, but the birds were so poorly lit and distant that I couldn’t discern anything that would clinch the ID. They settled down in the northeast corner of the compound, and the chat users squabbled about whether the bird was or wasn’t currently in view. Brendan suggested that we keep driving, and we could search from both locations if necessary. By the time we made it back to the southern drive, Tom confirmed that the bird had flown in from the northeast and landed once again near the earlier spot. It took some careful scanning of the assembled Greater Yellowlegs, but one of our neighbors finally managed to get a bead on the bird.

With my newest lifer set squarely in my scope view, I took some time to admire my prize. Even at such a great distance, the paler plumage of the Common Greenshank caused it to glow brightly among its dingy gray companions. The water was too deep for us to see the bird’s signature lower extremities, but it took flight several times as the flocks shuffled around, showing off the telltale white wedge pattern on its back. Goal achieved, Brendan and I exchanged congratulations. Before leaving Brigantine behind us, we took note of some of the other wildlife in the area. A calling flyby American Golden-Plover was a welcome surprise, and we tallied hundreds of ducks and shorebirds foraging on the expansive pools. These were repeatedly terrorized by a young Peregrine Falcon, and nearly 50 other species were observed during our visit. Satisfied with our successful chase, with bid the Greenshank farewell and began the return trip home.

A LeConte’s Sparrow was apparently found at Pelham Bay in the Bronx while we were searching the marshes of New Jersey, but we agreed that fighting traffic to seek out such an unreliable skulker late in the day was not a super appealing option. Thus, the sparrow continues to make a convincing case for status as my number one nemesis. Brendan wanted to beef up his county totals on the way back to Long Island, so we stopped at a couple of sites around Staten Island to do some local listing. Arbutus Lake hosted a flotilla of Gadwall, and Great Kills Park added a number of coastal and woodland species to our Richmond county lists. As we drove past Midland Beach, the calls of Royal Terns prompted us to pause and have a look-see. Word on the street was that a huge loafing flock had been hanging around in the area, an impressive sight considering the typically low densities of these seabirds in our region. The reports were absolutely true, and we counted upwards of 250 individuals resting on the sand just over the dune from the parking lot. We finally drove back over the Verrazano Bridge and enjoyed a relatively painless cruise down the Belt.

Brendan dropped me off back at home, and we thanked one another for the companionship on this exciting adventure. The Greenshank was certainly worth the time and effort that it took to track it down, and the spectacle of the situation won’t soon be forgotten. I’m sure that I will see this species again on future trips to Europe and beyond. Indeed, I will probably get to meet them at closer range and in greater numbers. There’s just something special about encountering birds in unexpected and unusual circumstances, though. The thrill that comes with surprise, shared lifers from faraway lands is a crucial part of the birding experience. That joy of experiencing a brand new rarity is something we all have in common.

Year List Update, October 28 – 397 Species (+ Common Greenshank)

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